A while back (okay, quite a while back) a young contender called J Son felt he should head the Iolcos Corporation. This was easier desired than done, not least because Iolcos already had a head named P Lius. For a complicated set of reasons that needn’t detain us here, Lius agreed to vacate his seat for Son, provided the latter could prove his worth by delivering stakeholder returns – specifically, he wanted the return to cover the vellus aureum threshold. This, in turn, required Son to work with A E Tees, another wily head honcho, who set our aspiring leader three assignments before he got to the vellus aureum. Son would have never succeeded but for the guidance provided by an HR advisor (Ms Dea) who developed a certain degree of (shall we say) affection for Son. Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that but I hope you’ll cut me some slack. The important thing is, Son went back to Lius and got the position he had been promised.
I wish I could say the story had a happy ending. It didn’t. Here, however, we are concerned with the fact that three final assignments had to be undertaken before assuming the leadership crown. Don’t worry. We’ll shift from myth-speak to management speak (is there a difference?) for the rest of this column. Before we speak of 'finishing assignments', though, it would be useful to recap briefly the selection and grooming of leaders.
When organizations are castigated for the disasters that follow the imposition of HirGus – Hired Guns recruited as CEOs from outside – who know little about the organization’s culture and care even less, they plead the lack of internally available alternatives. 1 This excuse doesn’t wash readily since, for any reasonably-sized organization with a double-digit age, HR should have prepared several internal choices even if (on rare occasions such as diversifying into a totally alien business domain) an outsider wins out. Let us quickly run over the kind of selection, on-the-job learning and external inputs that are essential for having an adequate CEO pipeline.
The process of narrowing the funnel for identifying future leaders must commence soon after fresh talent is inducted within the organization and certainly long before organizational knocks have bled the spirit, energy and desire-to-be-different from these young men and women. An earlier column explained how alternative fast-track schemes function and ways to choose and groom future leaders from early stages. 2 More recently, I have added two coda to the exposition. When choosing leaders for facing the uncertainties of tomorrow it is not enough to capture their capabilities at the time of selection but take into account the steepness of the slope they have traversed to reach there. 3 That is the best guarantee of future resilience and continued development in spite of handicaps. Moreover, constraints of time and shortage of the right kind of teachers prevent those running to the top of the pyramid from formally refreshing their knowledge and capabilities as frequently as they should (see the last paragraph in this section for exceptions). As such, our best leaders must also be LEADs (Lifelong Explorer & Autodidactic Doubters). 4
The grooming of Fast-Trackers (FTers) must vary substantially from company to company (depending on its strategic direction and future requirements) and from individual to individual (after assessing each one’s strengths and experience gaps). Taking these two requirements into account, rotational assignments for FTers must go beyond the traditional line and staff function alternation. Another overlay must be the evolutionary state the organization has reached or will assume by the time the FTer has to take charge. In a previous column I had written about Michael Watkins’ STARS model: 5 "As Watkins explains: 'STARS is an acronym for five common business situations leaders may find themselves moving into: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success. The STARS model outlines the characteristics and challenges of, respectively, launching a venture; getting one back on track; dealing with rapid expansion; re-energizing a once-leading business that is now facing serious problems; and inheriting an organization that is performing well and then taking it to the next level.' " 6 The STARS model will do nicely for linking FTer rotational assignments with the demands of strategy going forward.
Though the prime burden of learning must be borne through the LEAD’s self-study, it would be a callous organization that shied away totally from providing all formal inputs. Everyone who attains a certain responsibility level in the organization should have the benefit of attending culture-reaffirming, obsolescence-defeating and network-building programmes (using the best affordable faculty) at least once after each cross-over level. Far more selective, expensive and individually tailored would be nominations to prestigious management and technology institutions for medium to long term programmes in cutting-edge technologies or management innovations, with their attendant benefits of inter-corporate interactions. Finally, there are the gains to be made through one-to-one coaching to finesse any rough edges and hone the beneficially cutting ones.
Time now to review the final three experiences. Each of them triggers the acquisition and sharing of knowledge across the organization. Thus, we strengthen the horizontal arm of the 'T-shaped leaders' identified by Hise Gibson as being vital to organizations operating in turbulent environments that require leaders to "quickly evaluate opportunities and threats while operationalising strategy." 7
The Executive Assistant (EA): From Darwan to Dewan
This is a role that can be revisited on more than one occasion during a career. Each succeeding occasion can have varying and deeper benefits for both the incumbent as well as the leader s/he supports.
The advantages to the EA are obvious. Close to a career start or any major change of sub-organization, the stint provides an unequalled bird’s-eye view of what and who matters. Equally important, the EA gains visibility to one or two levels parallel or subordinate to the leader s/he is supporting – people who will be crucial for providing career steps on the route to the top. EA positions assumed later in a career permit substantive contributions in vital initiatives that do not fall under any existing functional area or business and which require the perceived backing of the top leader if they are to succeed. Probably most important for the development of a leader-in-the-making is being privy to real organizational challenges and how proven leaders deal with them. Such access is rarely available in any other role.
No less important for the organization are the contributions an EA can make in improving the leader’s effectiveness. To start with we have the gatekeeper role for both communications and people vying for the leader’s attention. The consequential gain in the leader’s productivity is accompanied by the side benefit of tutoring the EA in prioritization of issues and interactions in the context of that company’s needs and informal pecking order. Another way in which intelligent leaders use their EA is to provide unbiased information about the reality of the situation and people’s perceptions – something normally hidden or distorted before it reaches the top. Most important is the reverse mentoring opportunity the leader has in getting updated by the EA. This need not only be a counter to technological obsolescence. Organizations often have valuable leaders who suffer from one or two significant handicaps (and are hostile or immune to coaching). Providing such leaders with sensitive, senior EAs can gently steer them in the desired behavioural direction.
The Resource Allocator (RA): Intellectual and Interpersonal Intertwined
It is the CEO who takes the final resource allocation call but rare is the CEO who does not rely on very capable staff support to analyze the (almost invariably) inflated requests that s/he gets. The head of the analysis team needs not only the intellectual acumen to guide some of the sharpest minds in the firm but the political skill to manage the blandishments, threats and denigrations that resource seekers direct at the RA as their demands progress from reception, through analysis to actual slimming. The pressure can be sustained better if the RA role is double-hatted with a service role with few normative demands.
Those who withstand the rigours of the RA stint successfully, gain unequalled insights into what makes for success in the business. After all, the most productive use of scarce resources (whether talent, capital investments, money or anything else) is frequently the crucial determinant of competitive advantage. An equally valuable campaign-medal is the reputation for being able to stand up to the great barons of the business and the minions ready to do their retaliatory bidding. The RA also needs to be a PAL before s/he can be a CEO. "A leader who cannot change the direction of people’s behaviour is not much more than a figure at the head of a crowd – pushed in the direction it takes. One can be a manager (of sorts), a preacher and even a prophet(ess) without much political 'nous' or mastering the levers of power but, in a leader, such incapacities are an immediate shortcut to impotence if not disaster." 9 The RA role separates the children who are only happy when they can oblige their friends by saying 'yes' to them, from the adults who can live with a negative when it is in the organization’s best interest.
The company obviously gains a sustainable competitive advantage if the resource allocation process is both frugal and long-sighted. The 'scarcity' imposed by a strong RA should lead to resourcefulness which can be as important a mind-set gain as the substantive improvement in the productivity of that resource. One is tempted to conclude that the recent feasting to famine stories in global tech (and other) giants may have been far less severe had they robust RA processes championed by strong leaders or that their CEOs had gone through such an exposure before taking the lonely seat.
The Change Accomplisher (CA): Courageous Captain
Large-scale change, for all its attractions, has a rather chequered track record when it comes to successful implementation. Even if the diagnosis is spot-on and the change initiative is a strategic imperative that has full CEO backing, it has a high chance of failing. Frequently, this is because of the person chosen to drive the change agenda through the corporation. This surprising (considering the analytical effort expended and the importance of the returns) misjudgment takes three forms:
- Whether out of old loyalty or blindness, the CEO (or key influencer) allots the change leadership to a 'has-been' (or 'never-was') who has collided with the principle of Peter (as well as of Paul and Mary!). The rest of the organization treats this as a clear signal that the transformation exercise is of little consequence and references it only to sharpen the cruelty of its wit.
- Another alternative is when the change initiative is handed over to the function most proximate to it or, when it is equally remote from all others, to HR – the final resting place of more change programmes than it is humanly possible to count. This need not be the kiss of death if the function in question is led by (or the leader has a deputy who is) an FTer headed for greater things. Even otherwise, ridicule is likely to be less stringent than for the fogy and limited to grumbling questions like: "Doesn’t HR (or X) have anything better to do than troubling us with this?"
- Even less open resentment is expressed when the change is driven by an external consultant [Ed: Remind me what your day job is, Visty.], particularly if s/he is proximate to the CEO or promoter. That, however, doesn’t mean that the change will happen or be lasting if it does.
The best likelihood of a change programme gaining widescale support and growing roots within the culture of the organization is if it is driven by an FTer CA who is known to have CEO support (usually after one or more EA stints) and has proved the metal of which s/he is made while doing an RA role. The latter experience should have provided hands-on knowledge of how to extract the maximum efficiency out of the business engine and when to use its brakes. A CA has to prove s/he can also accelerate and steer skilfully while driving at speed. A worthwhile CEO has to make long-term change happen with enthusiasm and the CA assignment is the demonstration of this capability. A person who can influence others without being hierarchically higher, will continue to rely on spontaneous support rather than the power of authority even when s/he possesses the latter.
The greatest immediate benefit for organizations using FTers in CA roles is that changes that are strategically vital, will actually happen with minimal side-effects while readying the organization to face ever-bigger changes in the future. They will prepare pachyderms to prance! Like EA and RA assignments, but even more tellingly, success as a CA will be the best trade test for judging a home-crafted CEO.
What HR Should (and Shouldn’t) Do
The aspiring CEO has obviously been the prime focus of this column. However, every one of the suggestions in it has an irreplaceable HR component.
The process of building strong internal contenders starts years before the decision is at hand. The ingredient needing the longest lead time is an internal fast track scheme to identify, develop and aggressively accelerate the progression of the best young talent. 10 Such programmes flounder if the initial jump is not followed by career rotations guided by strategy-linked models such as the STARS one explained earlier. The rotational icing is, of course, the EA-RA-CA trio which this column is about. Only once these three girders are in position can a CHRO insist on healthier internal choices for CXO and then CEO positions. Till then, the organization will have to subsist on the ready-cooked and often culturally risky diet of HirGu-burgers. 11
If you recall our opening allegory, an HR advisor played a critical role in besting the three challenges our hero was put through. This is no less true of our future leaders. Right from the time they become FTers they consume a disproportionate share of HR guidance and coaching. By the time they are at the EA-RA-CA stages, none other than very senior HR leaders must carve out time and attention for each budding bidder. No outside coach can understand the nuances and fast-changing power equations within an organization, not least because most information to the coach comes from the limited subset available to the executive and is further angled by the spin s/he puts on it.
CEOs may change advisors as they progress and not all HR leaders have the resilience to cope with that distancing and transition. Some just cannot reconcile themselves to this loss of power and choose to move on. While this is understandable (though not admirable) what is truly condemnable is the spiteful action some resentful HR leaders take by disrupting the organizations and processes they had built during their tenures. Their infamy rightfully accompanies them for a long time as it did in the case of our allegorical Ms Dea whose full identity and fearsome parting words you can choose to depress yourself with in the reference note. 12
1.Visty Banaji, Guns for (Corporate) Hire, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 19-25, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
2. Visty Banaji, Fast Track to Organizational Transformation, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 38-44, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
3. Visty Banaji, The Up-Hill Climb, People Matters, 10 July 2023, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/employee-relations/the-up-hill-climb-38347).
4. Visty Banaji, Taking the LEAD in Learning Organizations, People Matters, 10 September 2023, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/culture/taking-the-lead-in-learning-organizations-38949).
5. Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days, Harvard Business School Press India Limited; Updated, Expanded edition, 2013.
6. Visty Banaji, "Help! The CHRO I Picked is a Lemon", Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 111-118, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
7. Hise Gibson, Every Company Should Have These Leaders – or Develop Them if They Don't, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 14 June 2023.
8. Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 371-377, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
9. Visty Banaji, Be a PAL, People Matters, 10 April 2023, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/business/the-road-less-travelled-37418).
10. Visty Banaji, Fast Track to Organizational Transformation, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 38-44, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
11. Visty Banaji, Guns for (Corporate) Hire, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 19-25, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
12. Euripides (trans E P Coleridge), Medea, from The Complete Greek Drama (Ed Whitney Jennings Oates and Eugene Gladstone O'Neill Jr), Vol 1, Random House, 1938. Here are Medea’s chilling words after deciding to kill her own children when their father, Jason, chose to take another wife:
My friends, I am resolved upon the deed; at once will I slay my children and then leave this land, without delaying long enough to hand them over to some more savage hand to butcher. Needs must they die in any case; and since they must, I will slay them – I, the mother that bare them.